Like their first-team counterparts, preparations for next season are already well underway at Aldershot Town’s Academy, and Academy Manager Scott Harrison has big plans.
“I want us to be the best youth academy outside of the Football League,” he begins, before suggesting that the ambition doesn’t stop there. “With our syllabus, we’re doing everything that Football League clubs do. Our new coaches have all got Academy backgrounds with clubs like Brighton and Hove Albion, Crystal Palace and Chelsea, so they’ve got that knowledge to provide higher-profile training. They’ve all got good experience and we’re able to combine our ideas to improve us all. It will take time, but if you do the right things you will get your rewards.”
Originally scheduled to start in August, the Club’s new age-group squads, from under 9 to under 16 level, have already begun their training programme. “We’ve got almost 60 boys signed on,” he reveals. “We are now able to monitor players before we bring them into the full-time Academy so they are ready for the demands of full-time football. We have some decent local lads who we hope will make us stronger next year.
“We’ve picked up some boys from Swindon Town, Oxford United and Reading – they’ve not made the grade there but they’re enthusiastic and hungry. We need to get these players here earlier so we can teach them how to act around the Club, how to play, and respect the community.”
Next season, The Shots will play more games against Football League youth academies, and – with similar matches pencilled in before the summer – Harrison has already seen the benefits. “The Elite Development Programme fixtures will be competitive and of greater quality. The players will learn how to win, learn how to lose and compete against a better player in one-on-one situations.
“A lot of the players that we’ve got at the moment are not quite to the standard that we want – they’re good lads, and technical players, but we need that football mentality to make the step up to the first-team.”
Admitting that 2014-15 has been “an up and down season” for the Academy’s two teams, competing in the Ryman Youth League West and Conference Youth Alliance, Harrison remains intent on using the experience to positive effect.
“We’ve done well in a lot of games,” he relates. “If we had a little bit more quality, or more of a certain type of player, I think we’d be in the top two or three of each league. We need to get these players thinking like footballers. We need to take our chances and be more clinical. But we’re not far away, and I think we’ll be even closer next year.”
Chris Barker’s success, too, hasn’t been restricted to the first-team; his involvement with the Academy has also made a huge impact, both in passing on his experience and highlighting the path from youth team to professional.
“Chris has been very proactive this season. At a lot of clubs, I haven’t seen the manager be as involved as he is with us,” admits Harrison. “The players see him there and it does raise our profile, and remind the players that the opportunity is there. We’ve seen players like Jay Welch progress into the first-team squad, and our goalkeepers are now training with the first-team. At the end of the day, we need more players who are of interest to the first-team – that means we’re doing something right.”
As ever, clubs like The Shots must enjoy a healthy and productive Academy to secure its long-term prosperity on and off the field, in developing its own players and profiting when they move on. Harnessing the talent of local players from eight years-old can only facilitate that process.
“We want to work with local, grassroots clubs, and for them to be able to tell us about good players,” concludes Harrison. “We can support each other, and that grassroots coaching is a vital part of their development – they need to play with their friends still, but we offer a more structured environment on top of that. We’re here to produce a player for a full-time academy
“The players see Aldershot Town, and they know that it is a good opportunity. The Club is still a big name, and Conference football is a good standard. Parents are now seeing what we’re doing. We’re taking small steps, we can’t promise the golden ticket immediately but we know what we want to achieve.”